Storytelling-driven product development

Marcus broke into a broad grin. He had wanted to drive a forklift since he was a child, but never had the opportunity to do so. Now, he was sitting in a silver Nissan forklift in the quietest part of his customer’s warehouse, and he took advantage of the opportunity to race around in his propane-powered steed. The aisles felt just like a Formula 1 track and he made high frequency engine and exhaust noises in his mind as he floored the pedal. He loved his job!

As much fun as this was for Marcus, he was on a serious mission. He was a product manager for a Fortune 500 conglomerate and his company was about to develop and release a product that broke convention and straddled the divide between B2B and B2C. He was at the warehouse to do market research, but in an unorthodox way. Instead of interviewing users and using focus groups, he was here to observe, experience and understand the story of his customers.

The power of storytelling is usually invoked at the tail end of marketing. Narratives are created to try and show clients and customers how a product or service could fit into and improve their lives. While that’s how storytelling is traditionally used, I asked myself a couple of years ago if there’s a better way of using storytelling to accomplish product and revenue goals. What if the power of storytelling was used to improve the entire product marketing process, from research and requirements specifications through manufacturing and go-to market?

I believe that using storytelling throughout the product creation process can help create amazing stories at the end. By incorporating an intimate, contiguous study of customers’ usage patterns, product interactions and needs, using storytelling techniques to help sell the business case for different features and functions, and keeping the customer narrative front and center at every step of the development and marketing processes, better products can be developed. I use the word ‘contiguous’ when talking about the market research process because it separates storytelling-driven product development from conventional product development. In a storytelling-driven process, we observe all stages of a product’s usage cycle, which could unearth precious insights that a snapshot-driven study might miss.

While parallels to ethnographic research immediately come to mind, the distinction between a storytelling driven approach to product development and the use of ethnographic research is the pervasiveness with which a storytelling approach is used in the product development process. Instead of using it only during the market research and requirements phases, storytelling should be present in the development of the business case, the design process, design reviews, prototyping, manufacturing readiness and final production. Having a clear reference for why each decision about the product was made can help with buy-in from everyone involved in the process and resolve issues related to scope creep.

One company that seems to have nailed storytelling-driven product development from the perspective of understanding their users’ product usage narratives is cool kitchenware maker, Joseph Joseph. As an example, while other companies that makepepper and salt mills focus on the traditional design aspects (ergonomics, quality of grind), Joseph Joseph looked at the entire usage pattern of the device. By understanding the story of the mill’s life and how its users interact with it, the company realized two additional things. The first is that many people use the mills at the dinner table, where their aesthetic qualities matter. The second is that most mills leave a messy residue behind after they’re used. They incorporated those observations into the design of their “No-Spill Mill Electric Salt and Pepper Mill with Closing Base” (hey, they’re great product designers, not necessarily naming gurus!), which resulted in them winning the Housewares Design Awards in 2012 for that product.

The idea of using storytelling to sell products is well established. I believe that by extending where and how storytelling is used in a product’s life cycle, a revolution in the product development process can occur, which will drive shorter development times, produce better products and increase revenue and profitability.